Freedomland wants to be a suspense thriller as well as a commentary on race relations. It succeeds not at all in the former and only tangentially in the latter. What it does offer are two brilliant performances that flesh out two interesting and well-developed characters and they make the movie worth seeing.
Brenda Martin (Julianne Moore), 37, a resident of a Gannon, a working class New Jersey suburban town, has a history as a school dropout and a drug addict, but the birth of her son gave her life meaning and she seems to have turned it around. Now she appears, distraught and with bloodied hands, claiming to have been carjacked by a black man near Armstrong, the predominantly black housing projects of the neighboring community, Dempsy.
Dempsy police detective Lorenzo Council (Samuel K. Jackson) questions Martin, sensing she hasn’t told him the whole story. Only later does she confess that her four-year-old son was asleep in the back seat of the car. Council considers the projects to be his professional "turf;" he knowsthe residents, they know him, and a level of trust has been established.
But Martin’s brother, Danny (Ron Eldard), a Gannon police detective with a violent streak, rallies his forces and puts Armstrong on "lockdown," ironically, a prison term now applied to a ghetto project. A line of plastic-shield-holding cops faces the anger and resentments of the residents. Confrontation leads to violence.
Moore (The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio, The Forgotten) is riveting in an intense performance. Long, stringy blond hair and puffy eyes underline her agitated condition, her self-destructive impulses and her near hysterical emotional state. Jackson (Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, The Caveman’s Valentine) thoroughly inhabits the Council role which is given some interesting complexities. He has a son in prison, serving time for armed robbery; he’s asthmatic. He’s also a decent human being who cares both about the folks in the projects and about Martin. There’s a powerful onscreen connect between these two characters that keeps the film interesting and tends to override its shortcomings.
Screenwriter Richard Price adapted his own best-selling novel, a daunting task in view of its over 700 pages (in the paperback edition), but he doesn’t succeed in meshing its pieces into a satisfying whole. The carjacking side of the plot seems to run parallel, rather than to be integral, to the issues of racism and hostility between the two communities. The story is telescoped; any attentive viewer will be able to figure out, well in advance, where it is going. There’s little then in the way of suspense, although the lead performances, the direction (Joe Roth), and the musical score (James Newton Howard) all contribute to a high level of tension. The secondary characters are woefully underdeveloped. Edie Falco (The Sopranos, Sunshine State) as a missing-child activist and Eldard (House of Sand and Fog, Black Hawk Down) never advance beyond two dimensional characterizations. (And how did Danny ever get away with sending his cops into another town’s jurisdiction? Credulity is stretched way out on that point.)
Still, Moore and Jackson are in top form and hold the attention throughout. They make you wish that Freedomland had a tighter screenplay.